Not up to standards?
originally published in Street Sheet, Sept. 15-30, 2009
Michael Decarlo Wright has been threatened by another homeless client, seen staff openly steal food and break into storage lockers, and been ordered by custodians to perform their janitorial tasks at the Next Door Shelter.
"I have witnessed and demonstratively experienced several state and federal laws being violated," Wright, a homeless San Francisco native, said.
His accounts, at the very least, describe violations of a municipal ordinance. The Standards of Care, which took effect last year, mandates a minimum requirement for conditions in shelters and the humane treatment of the people staying in them.
Out of more than 100 complaints similar to Wright's in a nine-month period, only one investigation has been conducted by the agency assigned to enforce compliance.
In the Shelter Monitoring Committee's (SMC) latest quarterly report to be submitted to the Board of Supervisors Sept. 17, the committee faults the Department of Public Health (DPH) for its lack of follow-through.
Previous SMC quarterly reports have revealed problems such as those Wright describes, as well as unclean bathrooms and disrespectful treatment of clients, are recurring.
From October 2008 to June 2009, SMC received 109 complaints and submitted eight investigations of multiple violations to the DPH for further inquiry. So far, DPH has responded to just one investigation.
The SMC periodically inspects shelters, and then forwards their reports to the DPH for corrective action, as required by the law. The Standards also requires that DPH respond to complaints within five days. But, the SMC noted that the DPH response time averaged over a month.
Among the criteria checked are professional decorum by shelter staff, basic hygienic standards at the facilities and the provision of bedding materials to clients.
As the law was being drafted, SMC was originally assigned enforcement duties, but at the last minute City Attorney Dennis Herrera said the committee lacked the authority. The DPH was then given the power to levy fines on noncompliant shelters over the protests of homeless activists.
According to the SMC report, the city's largest shelters had the most complaints leveled against them. Next Door topped the list with Multi-Service Center South and Episcopal Sanctuary following.
The problems that prompted the Standards apparently continue unabated. Allegations of abuse and disrespect by staff have been the No. 1 source of complaints. Difficulties in accessing shelter received the next most complaints. Maintaining health and hygiene standards, such as keeping bathrooms cleaned and stocked, continue to be a problem. Accommodating residents' disabilities as required by the Americans With Disabilities Act remain a challenge, even post-Standard.
In its latest report, SMC cited some examples of noncompliance from their inspections. Next Door didn’t have any paper towels or toilet paper when SMC visited in May. Before January 2009, MSC-South didn’t have blankets, sheets and pillows — another "must" under the standards — until it got funding. In addition to paper towels, A Woman’s Place failed to provide protective gloves and masks to staff when an inspection team stopped there last year.
“Without more oversight by the DPH on investigations, sites fail to receive corrective actions or other forms of technical assistance to improve the conditions at their site,” the SMC wrote. “In addition, timelier follow-up by DPH will help the City and County of San Francisco identify if nonadherence is based on fiscal limitations or other reasons.”
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